Headless Men and Hungry Monsters: the Anglo-Saxons and their “Others”
By Asa Simon Mittman
Paper given at Stanford University on March 13, 2003
Abstract: Anglo-Saxon England was a deeply multi-cultural society, composed of Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Britons and Romans. To provide some measure of national unity, authors and artists cast their gazes outward to disparate Others. Perhaps more than any other medieval society, the Anglo-Saxons focused on a host of monsters believed to inhabit distant Africa and Asia: The dog-headed, fire-breathing cynocephali, one-footed sciopods, wonderful headless, mindless, possibly soulless blemmyes, and many others. These creatures, along with a fantastic host of dragons, ogres and elves, populated the Anglo-Saxon world with a very real presence. In this discussion, I deconstruct their very careful, consciously constructed bodies – freakish, hybrid bodies that, in turn, render the bodies of their viewers as stable and normal.
Introduction: Medievalists, according to Caroline Bynum, must write about “what is other – radically terrifyingly, fascinatingly other.” The fascination we feel in dealing with radically different cultures, and the attendant trepidation such encounters inspire, would not have been unfamiliar to the Anglo-Saxons. They, too, chose to dwell upon that which is “other,” often terrifyingly so. I am separated from my Anglo-Saxon Others by a chronological gap which cannot be crossed. They were separated from a number of theirs by equally insurmountable geographical stretches. For them, the Others were monstrous, not in the metaphorical way we now use the term, but in the most literal sense. They were not merely monstrous; they were actual monsters. The preface to an eleventh-century manuscript of the Liber Monstrorum, or The Book of Monsters explains that the text was written in response to a request for knowledge:
You have asked about the hidden parts of the orb of the earth, and if so many races of monsters ought to be believed in which are shown in the hidden parts of the world, throughout the deserts and the islands of the ocean, and are sustained in the most distant mountains . . . and that I ought to describe the monstrous parts of humans and the most horrible wild animals and innumerable forms of beasts and the most dreadful types of dragons and serpents and vipers.